In reading the kind of articles that one does in the middle of a stay-at-home order, I stumbled across an announcement that one of my childhood favorite cartoons, Animaniacs, would be returning. In what seems to be just as unrealistic as the reality we find ourselves in, the two lab mice that try to take over the world are returning as well. I’m an introspective person by nature, but all this free time has me wondering if you’re pondering what I’m pondering.
Universals and Particulars
Societally, we’ve traded overarching truths for what we believe to be verifiable facts. This isn’t a new development but it has spread further and hardened within our collective mindsets. Instead of beginning with the big picture and connecting the smaller details as we learn and grow, we attempt to gather as many details as possible to construct the bigger picture. There is a certain logic to that approach; however, it also has flaws.
First, if you don’t start with a telos (an ultimate object or aim), then your end result will be piecemealed at best. The presupposition is that letting the facts lead where they may is the best approach to arrive at objective truth. The trouble with that presupposition is that it doesn’t address beauty, purpose, or ethics. What happens when we don’t possess the ethical wherewithal to adequately assess the implications of our innovative capabilities? Approximately 70 years ago, Richard Weaver wrote sobering words that have proven prophetic and increasingly relevant.
So the scientist, having lost hold upon organic reality, clings the more firmly to his discovered facts, hoping that salvation lies in what can be objectively verified. From this comes a most important symptom of our condition, the astonishing vogue of factual information. It is naturally impossible for anyone to get along without some knowledge that he feels can be relied on. Having been told by the relativists that he cannot have truth, he now has “facts.” One notes that even in everyday speech the word fact has taken the place of truth; “it is a fact” is now the formula for a categorical assumption. Where fact is made the criterion, knowledge has been rendered unattainable. And the public is being taught systematically to make this fatal confusion of factual particulars with wisdom. (Weaver, 2013, p. 53)
Second, the lack of a cohesive framework has fragmented our thinking such that we compartmentalize our lives and approach to seeking knowledge. Faith is given a category but not allowed to cross over into our convictions, ethics, vocations, or the public square. Even personally, we tend to view our lives as a series of bubbles that don’t and shouldn’t overlap. What has faith to do with vocation? What has education to do with art? What has beauty to do with business? When questions like that aren’t even posed, the answers are undiscovered. William Durant emphasized the importance of an integrated understanding, approximately 90 years ago.
Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills wholesale in war; but only wisdom–desire coordinated in the light of all experience–can tell us when to heal and when to kill…Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosohpy can give us wisdom. (Durant, 2009, pp 2-3)
Third, the notion that subsequent knowledge must entirely supplant what came before misunderstands the cumulative aspect of learning at a macro level. Contemporary knowledge may be more advanced, but it is not necessarily superior in every regard. There is much to be learned from those who have reasoned before us and given great thought to metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological issues. The orthodox Christian faith, for example, has endured as a worldview with which to engage contemporary events, and will continue to do so until the eschaton.
Who would imagine that six feet could feel like the vastness of space? Prior to the pandemic, it was fairly common to be socially distant before social distancing was required while ironically tapping away on social media. This raises serious questions about genuine connection in a time when social media has become one of the only ways to connect with our family and friends.
Can technology connect us? Absolutely. Does technology provide the best possible connection? Absolutely not. One of the aspects of being isolated during the pandemic is that the significance of genuine personal connections is more fully appreciated. Zoom and Portal may provide windows of communication, but they are merely substitutes for genuine connection.
The reality of our current crisis does in fact have two sides: preservation of life and livelihood. If we could simply take a step back and put ourselves in the shoes of others, then we’d find the empathy to understand and relate to the situations and needs of our neighbors. Some are extroverts whose jobs have been lost, acutely feel the mental strain of isolation, and find themselves battling extreme anxiety and loneliness. Others are at risk to a greater degree from the virus due to age or an immunocompromised condition and face the reality of the danger with increased pressure. Do we have enough empathy to at least understand the perspective that differs from our own?
If there is one thing that has utterly disgusted me during this entire time, it is the politicization of this chaotic crisis from both sides. Both political parties, the media, and self-professed medical and economic experts have taken carefully selected pieces of the data to fit their preconceptions and try to shape public perception toward their advantage.
Objectivity seems to have gone the way of the dodo. Instead of approaching things in a neutral manner, we search for ways to make new developments fit our preconceived political concepts, and then try to advance a narrative that aligns accordingly. Reality gets ignored by competing perspectives, and anyone who dares to question the validity of any prevailing perspective is categorized and demonized by the pundits. It happens across the political spectrum.
Pinky and the Brain tried to take over the world. We’re doing our best to understand our world and try to make it a little better. A cohesive perspective, genuine connections, empathy, and objectivity would go a long way toward doing just that.
Durant, W. (2009). The story of philosophy: the lives and opinions of the great philosophers. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Weaver, R. M. (2013). Ideas have consequences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.